Starlings are known to flock together into mesmerizing groups called “murmurations,” and then swoop and dive together in synchronized acrobatics shows.
But this group of starlings — part of a murmuration of as many as 10,000 that has gathered in West Cork, Ireland — started doing particularly impressive aerial tricks earlier this month. It was caught on video by a group of local birdwatchers, too.
The display wasn’t driven by a desire to show off, though. It was driven by a predator, according to the birdwatcher who posted the video on Facebook.
“The Peregrine arrived,” the birdwatcher wrote in a post accompanying the Jan. 13 video. “It can be seen in this video, unable to make a kill. All this happened above my head.”
The video has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
“A lot of the birds would have originated in Scandinavia and Russia but there are birds coming down all the time from further up the country where it’s cold and snowy,” Peter Wolstenholme, of Birdwatch Ireland’s West Cork branch, told the Irish Times. “I estimate there are between 5,000 and 10,000 starlings which would make it the biggest murmuration we’ve had in West Cork.”
The swooping and weaving spectacle the starlings put on takes less effort than one might expect, NPR reports. There’s not one starling who’s leading the pack, either — the movement of each bird depends primarily on the movement of the six or seven birds nearest, despite the fact that the birds are part of a cohesive group of thousands.
And the falcon’s presence could have something to do with it.
“Why they do it is very complicated — they are obviously learning flying skills, they are learning how not to be caught by a predator. If they are on their own, a sparrow hawk can fly along in the field and just pick them up in its talons,” Wolstenholme told the Irish Times.
But scientists say they aren’t not quite sure of the starlings’ motivations, though evading predators is an obvious theory. It’s possible the birds are congregating and flying in unison to keep warm, or even creating the spectacular choreography to let other starlings know they’ve found a good spot to roost, Dr. Anne Goodenough of the University of Gloucestershire told the Guardian.
“If you’ve got lots of birds coming and dropping into an area, that’s likely to be a good place to roost, so it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Dr. Goodenough told the British newspaper.
Goodenough spearheaded a citizen science investigation into starling murmurations starting several years ago, hoping to harness the public’s curiosity to learn more, she told the Guardian.
Starling numbers in the United Kingdom have fallen by two-thirds since the mid-1970s, the Guardian reports, and scientists hope research into the birds’ behaviors could help researchers figure out how to stall or reverse that trend.
Starlings are natives of Europe, western Asia and northern Africa, but they’ve been introduced around the world, according to the Audobon Society.